Even the kitchen sink is art

The latest exhibition at the Israel Museum asks viewers to find the commonalities between contemporary artworks and handmade crafts made through the generations.

art sink 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
art sink 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, peers down into the sink full of dirty dishes and looks astonished "It's so Van Gogh," he says. "Starry Night." It's true that the dishwater facsimile on exhibition is, like Van Gogh's 1889 painting, perfectly aswirl in bold, shiny blue textures, capturing both movement and light. Each minute detail in the dazzling kitchen installation, from the Cap'n Crunch and Frosted Flakes cereal boxes to the oven's interior and even the dust bunnies, likewise boasts light, color, texture and references. However, when Liza Lou started creating the 17-square-meter "Kitchen" in 1990, her use of glass beads as a medium was even more revolutionary than was Van Gogh's use of bold color strokes in his day. Van Gogh's work took inspiration from the French impressionist and post-impressionist works that had already made it acceptable to paint dots and dashes, rather than blended color, to form images. When Liza Lou started pasting beads onto her paintings, replacing the brush stroke, she saw herself as expanding her vocabulary for creating traditional works of art - portraits, still lifes and landscapes. But she was ridiculed for being an artisan who focused on decoration. When she left art school and took odd jobs to support her vision, she set to work on what would turn out to be a consuming five-year project, creating an Americana environment as a monument to the history of American women's hard and thankless work in the kitchen. "'Kitchen' is essentially a life-size still life," she tells The Jerusalem Post, explaining that she still considers herself a painter who approaches classical themes, albeit by applying glass tubes onto forms. The cabinets are beaded with bold wood grain cum camouflage patterns that recall a shiny, happy version of the imitation wood grain used by Braque in his cubist paintings and collages. The colorful wallpaper is adorned with golden irons, surrounded with a royal looking gold crest. The oven is open, with cherry pie ready to be served on the wire rack. No details are spared on the pots and pans, appliances, food, cleaning products and tools, tablecloth, furniture or floor. Even the morning paper is laid out with breakfast, with the cheerful, tongue-in-cheek headline boasting, "Housewife Beads the World!" In her tribute to women's traditional work, Lou no doubt spent more time in her kitchen than the average housewife. But her work can't be described completely as thankless. In 2002, two years after "Kitchen" was shown in public, Lou was awarded the Macarthur Genius fellowship. Whenever "Kitchen" (owned by Eileen and Peter Norton of California) has been on display, Lou's audiences often become spellbound, circling the work looking to discover missed details and repeating such expressions as "wow." THE WOW factor of time- and labor-intensive work was one of the ideas behind the show, organized by the museum's senior contemporary art curator, Suzanne Landau. The collection she has assembled is also, in part, a reaction to the art world's saturation of high-technology produced works, like video, which is contrary to this show's feeling of up-close and hands-on. Calling the show "Bizarre Perfection," Landau pulled about 50 works from the encyclopedic museum collections and brought in a few large-scale works on loan, including "Kitchen." Antiquities dating from the 13th century BCE, together with religious, ceremonial, decorative and useful objects and contemporary art span continents, eras and ideologies, but share a common thread of meticulous handiwork. "My field is contemporary art, but for many years, when showing contemporary art, I almost always had a piece from another period to show that the juxtaposition creates a dialogue. They work very well together and many times a new meaning comes up for both sides," says Landau. "I wanted to see if the line between craft and art, and high and low, blurs." "High art" refers to painting, sculpture and traditional fine arts that create art for art's sake and not to serve a function. "Low art" can refer to illustration, handicrafts, kitsch household objects, jewelry-making, advertising and any craft that requires mastery but serves a decorative or functional purpose. "I hope the viewer won't feel the difference between them, but rather will see that as a conversation between them," Landau explains. Next to the "Kitchen" installation on one-side is a collection of royal head coverings from late 19th century/early 20th century Nigeria, which are scrupulously decorated with glass beads. On the wall to its other side, a large wall-hanging looks from afar like a luscious, gold-mesh tapestry, but is simply aluminum beer caps lovingly arranged and strung together with copper wire, handcrafted by African artist El Anatsui. In two large-scale installations by Korean contemporary artist Do-Ho Suh, the subject of the individual and the collective is explored in seemingly home settings, until closer inspection reveals the intense detail. What appears to be decorative wallpaper is actually thousands of Korean high-school yearbook photos minimized to the smallest size possible that would allow the eye to still identify detail. Flooring he created of glass, which viewers can walk across, is strengthened by thousands of miniature figurines underneath with arms raised, palms up, to hold up and reinforce the ordinarily fragile material. A 19th-century Chinese wrist-rest is also designed with scores of tiny figures, in this case carved from ivory and reflecting a local legend. Miniature wow-factor items include Chapter 4 of the Song of Songs inscribed in micrography around a hole in a large egg; a small, single sheet of parchment inscribed in micrography with five scrolls in four languages; and Japanese tea bowls, painted with the figures of 100 poets and poetesses on the outside and miniature calligraphy inside sharing the poems, one each, of the writers. The show also includes objects comprised of creative materials ranging from feathers to porcupine quills, to a contemporary work made exclusively of toothpicks. ARE THEY works of art or are they crafts? This question of what constitutes fine art has been kicked around for a long time, most notably since Marcel Duchamp took everyday objects out of their original context and put them into galleries, calling them "readymades." When Duchamp launched this new wave of conceptual work based on idea rather than image, traditional notions of color, composition, form and beauty became quaint. Artists have been struggling to find their place on that continuum since. "I am surprised that any person educated in the arts would exclude an artist's work because of the material that they are using," Liza Lou says of the anti-bead critics. "To do that is to pretend that Duchamp never existed." In 1990, the New York Museum of Modern Art challenged definitions of high and low art when it launched the notorious exhibition "High and Low," examining contemporary and modern artists against the influence of the comics, caricatures, graffiti and advertising. Though many of the connections they made were indisputable, a number of art critics were enraged at the idea that "low art" could be put in such a "high art" environment as a subject for serious discourse. But art historian Robert Hughes argued that "the idea that 'low' sources somehow debase the integrity of 'high' art is moonshine, of course. It always has been: Goya's "Caprichos," for instance, draw heavily on folk proverbs, crude popular drama and 18th-century (mainly English) caricature. Miro was inspired by comic strips and folk scatology. And Philip Guston in the 1970s was able to attain his measure of greatness as a tragic painter only through a free, uncondescending use of motifs from George Herriman's great strip Krazy Kat and the underground comics of Robert Crumb." Liza Lou saw "High and Low" in 1990 and felt a sense of kinship with the works and references. "Clearly there was a precedent for working in 'non-art' genres and materials, such as advertising, popular culture, comics," she says. Associate contemporary art curator Tanya Sirakouch says Duchamp's legacy is that beauty and decoration as an aesthetic became a crime. "Modernism liked minimalism and structure. Now these artists are responding in the opposite direction." Paying an ironic homage to Duchamp, sitting quietly in a corner, is a small ladder that looks like it was forgotten by the maintenance workers. The object, it turns out, is not just a "readymade" object, taken from a closet and installed into the gallery as "art." On close inspection, the ladder turns out not to be dirty with paint stains, as it appears, but is carefully inlaid with precious stones - diamonds, opals and pearls - to appear as splatters. The ladder becomes at once readymade and handmade, common and precious. Common objects are elevated, through the intensive labor and time investment of these hands-on artists, says Landau. "They make magic from nothing. In this digital age, when every day there is a new invention to make things quicker and easier, it is amazing, even you could say marvelous, to see these artists who invest so much."